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SAVANNAH MORNING NEWS

DUTY, DEATH IN AN APACHE
AS AN ARMY TOP GUN, APACHE LONGBOW HELICOPTER PILOT NICHOLAS DIMONA GAVE HIS WHOLE BEING TO FLYING. HE DIED ON A NIGHT TRAINING FLIGHT HE DIDN'T HAVE TO MAKE.

Friday, August 20, 2004

Page: 1A

By Michael Fabey

Series: DANGEROUS SKIES
The Army and Coast Guard are struggling with safety concerns over their helicopter workhorses. The Army's Apache and the Guard's Dolphin have malfunctioned, jeopardized missions and, in the Apache's case, claimed lives.

It might be hard to picture a 32-year-old chief warrant officer - a decorated combat veteran from the war in Iraq - as "giddy" while behind the controls of his country's most lethal Army aircraft.

But that's how his friends and fellow pilots describe Nicholas P. DiMona II.

 

Still, to get into the Army's warrant officer school, DiMona had to pass a battery of physical, mental and knowledge tests. And he had to prove that his life, to that point, embodied what it took to be an aviator and leader.

To weed out the undesirables, Army officers had to "assess as a minimum the applicant's military bearing, leadership potential, personal history, training, experience, and motivation," according to the school's training guide.

For three months they endured such scrutiny, even off post, at Fort Rucker, Ala.

"Civilian clothing should be in good taste," the manual continues. "Warrant Officers will not authorize clothing such as tee shirts characterized with abusive inscriptions or drawings for wear. Remember that officers set the example; dress and act appropriately."

After those basics, they learned instrumentation flight. They learned to fly a TH-67 helicopter before graduating to a higher class vehicle, like a Kiowa.

Then, they moved on to the helicopter they would serve in.

In DiMona's case, that was the Apache Longbow, a sophisticated attack aircraft which required as much as two months of additional training.

"The Apache program is the hardest school in Army aviation," said 1st Lt. Brett- Lewis, DiMona's former platoon leader.

As DiMona's career moved upward, he was expected to be a master of all aviation trades.

Those expectations were fine with DiMona. Meeting them meant he could fly.

As his mother, Elma, put it:

"He lived his dream. Not many people know if they even have a dream."

In the end, his dream claimed his life.

The Army has not released what caused DiMona's Apache to go down, killing him and his fellow pilot. But the crash was part of two disturbing trends - one of a dozen Apache crashes during the first half of this year and part of a sharp increase in the aircraft's mishap rate this year.

What made DiMona's crash stand out even more was this: according to the Army, these were this year's only fatalities and the first Longbow deaths at Fort Stewart, ever.

REACHING FOR THE SKY - EARLY

Elma DiMona can't remember a time when her son didn't want to fly.

"That's all he talked about," she said

There's a picture of Nicholas, about 3-years-old, embracing a blow-up toy plane nearly as big as he is. His grin fills the frame.

Not that he was completely single-minded.

"He really didn't get into any serious trouble," his mother recalled. "He was just - a boy."

He loved skateboarding, biking and shooting with his dad. He even made his own bullets.

Young DiMona also liked football. He became a fan of the New York Giants, despite his suburban Philadelphia roots. A brave and dangerous choice in an area full of Eagles fans.

Nicholas covered his walls with posters of models or Sports Illustrated swimsuit covers. There's even a picture of him as a boy, standing next to an Eagles cheerleader. Team loyalty was one thing, a pretty girl, apparently, another.

But his dreams were always in his sights.

He collected every Star Wars figure. Top Gun was more than a movie - it was a life to strive for.

"Tom Cruise was his friend," his mother recalled.

But as starry-eyed as Nicholas DiMona could be about flying, he was, even as a high schooler, already mapping out his life. If nothing else, he was always a careful and practical guy.

He thought the other military services might fail to live up to any promises they made in recruiting him.

He trusted the Army. After all, his father and his grandfather had both been soldiers.

When DiMona graduated from Haddon Heights High School in southern New Jersey at 17, he was too young to enter the Army without parental permission.

His mother grudgingly gave it.

"I didn't want him to go in," Elma said. "But I knew that college would not be for him. He was a very smart boy, but he just couldn't sit that long. He needed to be moving, to be doing something."

They had a going away party June 20, 1990.

The invitations were red, white and blue and featured Uncle Sam on the front.

SUCCEEDING - HIS WAY

DiMona was good with his hands, and wound up working as a technician - as well as doing some special forces work.

He considered the Army his second family, and had two tattoos etched on his right leg - "My Country" and "My Heritage" - one with the American flag, the other with the Italian one.

He liked his work in special forces and saw in it a future that might be as fulfilling as life in a cockpit. He wanted to join the military police.

But he was good at his technician's job, and the Army balked at moving him out of it.

Never the follower, or one to just settle, DiMona left the service after five years and became a contractor back home in Jersey.

There, Nicholas finally met his match in Melissa. She was everything he needed.

"She's strong-willed and independent - on his level," Elma said.

The couple got married and agreed DiMona should return to the Army. At Melissa's urging, he decided to pursue his old dream of flight.

This time, he'd make sure he got what he wanted - to fly helicopters.

He rose to the rank of chief warrant officer 2, proving he had what it took not only to enter and complete flight school - and fly the Longbow - but also to the other thing the Army insisted he be, a leader, in and out of combat, for two years under the watchful eyes of his commanders and peers.

"He had already worked hard to get there," his mother said. "He did it from the ground up. Everything had to be just right for him. The way he dressed. The way he acted. The way he did anything. Meticulous."

1st Lt. Lewis, his former platoon leader, said, "Ninety-nine percent of the time he'd be right. He didn't sugar-coat things. I told Nick, 'I wish we had more people like you in the Army.'"

DiMona arrived at Fort Stewart and Hunter Army Airfield in November 2001, about two years after he had qualified for Army flight school.

He served during Operation Iraqi Freedom. As a pilot in Iraq, he once pulled a fellow flyer from a burning, fully armed Apache - then flew off to finish the stricken plane's mission.

He and the other pilots he fought with received medals and commendations for flying medevac escorts and other missions.

Lewis felt DiMona was a future chief warrant officer 5, the highest pilot rank for a warrant officer, the one that means you're true Army aviation royalty. Like his hero Tom Cruise, he was pretty much the local Apache fleet's top gun.

Other Army officers tagged him as a future commissioned officer, but that would mean he'd have to give up most of his flying.

And there was no way he'd do that, his mother said.

"YOUR BABY BOY"

This decorated war veteran was never so much the warrior that he wouldn't hug and kiss his mother.

And DiMona was never too old a son that, when talking to his mother, he referred to himself as anything but "your baby boy."

Before he left for Iraq, he presented a book to his mother, "The Home You Made for Me. Celebrating a Mother's Love," by Thomas Kinkaid. The book is a scrapbook in words. It offers children the opening to a sentence and invites them to complete it with feelings about their mothers.

On the page titled "One of my happiest memories of you is," DiMona finished with, "The way you looked at me during our dance on my wedding day. Your look was one of pure, unconditional love. Not until my own children did I think or could imagine such a love could exist."

Some of the pages remain blank.

"He said he would finish them when he got back," she said. As she spoke, the book sat closed on her lap.

She wiped a tear from her cheek.

"He didn't get a chance. But that's OK. We lived it."

Indeed they did.

DiMona became a father, husband and son devoted to his life, family and country.

While flying missions in Iraq, DiMona carried in his Apache two small American flags: he gave one to his mother and the other to his wife when he returned.

Whenever DiMona flew, he wore the Blue Angels watch his mother bought him when he graduated flight school. He also carried an embroidered cross made by his grandmother.

"That's what holds a family together," his mother said. "Faith."

DiMona had something else in the Apache cockpit: a small, brown, worn leather Bible his grandfather, Dominick Persiani, carried during World War II.

Inside the book's covers, Persiani had etched in the names of places he'd stayed or served in Germany, the United States and other countries.

The service lives of grandfather and grandson had crisscrossed at home and abroad.

"Here's Camp Stewart," Elma said, the Bible shaking slightly in her hand.

"That's where my son died."

LOOKING AT THE SAME MOON

The Bible, the cross, the flag, even the dog tags DiMona wore the day he died now have a home on a special shelf in his mother's house on Pawley's Island.

The shelf serves as a small shrine to her son - and all that he stood - and flew - for. His Blue Angels watch is there, too, though the band was broken in the crash. "A piece is missing," she said.

She last saw him on Father's Day with Melissa and their children, 5-year-old Nicholas III and his sister, Gianna, two years younger.

They were all at Tybee Beach, watching the Apache pilot bob on a board in the surf, and scoop up shells from the water.

"He looked up at me and smiled," she said.

Her baby boy.

"It was my last wonderful memory of him."

On that day, the DiMonas had nothing but high hopes for the future. Nicholas had survived the war and was about to go on assignment to Germany, a place where his family could live with him.

The DiMonas were preparing for the move. They had just settled on the sale of their home at Fort Stewart shortly before DiMona climbed into the cockpit on the last evening of his life.

It was a training flight, one that DiMona didn't really have to make.

Most senior pilots, at that stage, a week or so before a new assignment, would stay on the ground.

Not DiMona.

He took a younger pilot - Warrant Officer 1 William Loffer- - up that Tuesday night to run the junior officer through the paces, teach him a thing or two, pass the mantle, the old top gun to the new one.

The Army values mentoring highly.

"Mentorship is a responsibility that cannot be taken lightly," the ever-present warrant officer training guide says. "As a mentor you may need to set and enforce tough standards, show how to excel in duty performance."

DiMona was doing all those things that night.

"The purpose of that flight was to help Bill Loffer become more proficient," said 1st Lt. Lewis, DiMona's former platoon leader.

DiMona and Loffer were practicing some very tricky flying that night - using infrared sensors to track their path as they flew low over the ground and trees.

Putting an Apache through these sort of paces can tax even the most experienced pilots.

Even the Army's top guns.

But such difficult training is necessary. The Apache's night-time ability to come in low and fast is one of the very attributes the Army finds so valuable.

"We need to train like we fight," Lewis said.

The Army won't publicly discuss its investigation into the accident.

Right now, though, the DiMonas are less concerned with what caused the crash than they are in moving beyond it to survive as a family.

Elma has her pictures, mementos - and memories.

Melissa and the children are back in New Jersey.

The pilot's son wants to follow his dad into the Army and the cockpit.

"He wanted to fly helicopters with his father," Elma DiMona said.

Now, the younger DiMona no longer has that chance.

He might find solace, though, in a small booklet his grandmother wrote and illustrated just before his father left for Iraq.

The booklet was her way of tying her family together even when they were far apart.

"Whenever you look at the moon," the passage says, "I'll be looking at the same moon."

WHAT MAKES AN AVIATION WARRANT OFFICERSO SPECIAL?

A fundamental difference stems from the combat leader role. Aviation warrant officers not only command approximately 80 percent of the aircraft cockpits, but lead the majority of flights. This combat leadership role does not exist for technical services officers.

What are the training requirements?

The basic course consists of initial entry rotary wing "flight school" (32 weeks), followed by the Aviation Warrant Officer Professional Development Course (four weeks, two days). All rated warrant officers receive Army aviator wings after completing the course. Then they attend a six-to-14 week advanced Aircraft Qualification Course.

CLIMBING THE LADDER: WHAT DID NICHOLAS DIMONA NEED TO BECOME A CHIEF WARRANT OFFICER 2?

As a CW2, a pilot will continue to expand his knowledge and skills through diverse worldwide assignments and additional duties. Rated aviation warrant officers must develop leadership skills and increase the scope of their responsibility by attaining pilot-in-command status. An aviation warrant officer can expect to be promoted to CW2 in 24 months.

WHAT ADDITIONAL TRAINING IS NEEDED TO FLY THE AH-64D APACHE LONGBOW?

Aviators qualified only in the AH-64A must complete a six-week supplemental qualification course before being considered AH-64D qualified. Full 14-week training began in fiscal year 2000 to qualify aviators who are not "A-model" rated.

WHAT ELSE IS EXPECTED?

  • Be positive about everything. Do not present your commander with problems unless you have already tried unsuccessfully to resolve them through the chain of command.
  • Steer clear of the whiners and complainers. Get to know the philosophy of your boss and support it.
  • Remember, bad publicity or opinions, right or wrong, will follow you for years.
  • You are an officer and a leader. Act like one.
  • Don't get a DWI, have a confrontation with a higher or adjacent staff, misbehave at a social event, get drunk and vulgar with family members present, or do most anything negative.
  • A warrant officer 1 is at the bottom of the officer pecking order in civilian as well as military clothes. Do not simply sit doing nothing in your quarters. Get out and be active. Strive to improve.
  • If you do not have an associate's degree, go to the education center and get started.
  • If you are not willing to come to work on time, looking like a soldier, and mentally and physically prepared to do your best in contributing to the defense of your country with your fellow soldiers, then you should seek another profession where standards are less demanding.

Source: Army's Warrant Officer Flight Training Guide.